The County Council played out a tense drama last night in a theater of empty seats.
In the first act, the council voted $1 million in emergency bond funds to rid the old Carrs Mill landfill near Lisbon of hundreds of 55-gallon drums containing cancer-causing contaminants.
In the second act, the council narrowly approved raises of 2.5 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively, for council members and the county executive to be elected later this year.
In the third act, the council refused to broaden a countywide smoking ban scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 1996. Once the ban takes effect, smoking will be outlawed in nearly every public place except self-enclosed restaurant bars with separate ventilation systems.
The outcomes for all three pieces of legislation were initially in doubt.
FTC County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who vetoed two earlier smoking bans in part because he did not believe they were comprehensive enough, wanted the exemption for bars removed.
Only Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd, supported him. Mr. Drown said the Ecker amendment is necessary to protect employees as well as customers from second-hand smoke.
Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, the chief architect of the 1996 smoking ban, said Mr. Ecker's attempt to tighten the ban was premature.
"We need to give [the ban] a chance to see how it is implemented" before making any changes, he said. "If we need any changes, we can do that" later.
Councilman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, who earlier worked with Mr. Drown to widen the ban, said he felt the ban as currently crafted is about right for now.
"This is a continuing evolutionary process," he said. By requiring separate ventilating systems, the current ban will improve the air quality in self-enclosed bars, Mr. Farragut said.
Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, called the present ban "a huge step in the right direction," saying, "We need to leave it as it is."
On the landfill issue, Ms. Pendergrass criticized Mr. Ecker and the other council members for using bond money to pay for the Carrs Mill cleanup. She said it was inexcusable to increase county debt rather than tap contingency reserves.
Mr. Ecker said contingency funds are already committed for other things, such as replenishing the county's dwindling self-insurance fund and replacing aging vehicles.
Ms. Pendergrass had appeared to have convinced her Democratic colleagues to postpone action on the Carrs Mill request until Jan. 18. Indeed, Mr. Gray had told administration officials late yesterday that the council would do just that.
But in a meeting with Mr. Ecker and public works officials before last night's council session, Mr. Gray and Mr. Farragut changed their minds after hearing from Public Works Director James M. Irvin, who said the county might have to stop removing the contaminated drums from Carrs Mill if funds were not approved immediately.
Also, Mr. Ecker pledged to review the situation in the spring. If money in the general fund is available, he will pay the $1 million in cash rather than use bond financing, he said. That was enough for Mr. Farragut, who said, "It gives us flexibility we would not otherwise have."
Then it was time to discuss the pay bill, which gives council members to be elected in November raises of $700 a year in each of their four years in office.
Mr. Drown said the raise pointed up a need for council members to give county employees the same percentage increase.
If not, members of the new council should receive a smaller salary, he said. He then voted for the raise "reluctantly."
Ms. Pendergrass said she was persuaded by Mr. Drown's argument and voted against the pay raise along with Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, who said the salaries should remain the same -- $27,500 for members, $28,500 for the chairman.